Isla de Lobos, Punta del Este, Uruguay

Gorriti Island in Punta del Este, Uruguay. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Punta del Este

Punta del Este has reigned as one of South America's most glamorous beach destinations for the past several decades. The most important movie, television, and fashion celebrities of Buenos Aires descend on the city, particularly during the short period between Christmas and the middle of January, creating an intense, vibrant scene, known as the temporada (season). Most beachgoers in Uruguay are from neighboring Argentina, but the city Punta del Este has recently been discovered by American and European tourists. December through February is generally the high season, while November, March, and April make up the shoulder season, when costs drop significantly.

Most locals simply call the city, "Punta." It is situated on a once-strategic point where the wide Rio de la Plata empties into the Atlantic. This point is the historical area of the city, where a fort once existed. Today, you can visit Faro de Punta del Este, the city's lighthouse, dating from 1860, and the nearby Meteorological Station with a lookout tower. On the tip of the peninsula, Puerto Punta del Este is pleasant for strolling. Many come to watch the yachts arrive in order to find out which celebrities will be in town.

There are two sides to Punta: the calm river, or bayside area, and the much rougher ocean side, where surfing and other activities are popular. Mansa Beach is on the river side, close to downtown; Punta Ballena, an area known for whale-watching (ballena is Spanish for whale), is several miles further out. The point is also famous for the hotel and art studio complex called Casa Pueblo, designed by the artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. It's a not-to-be-missed site, where locals and tourists alike gather to watch the sunset.

On the ocean side, beaches get less crowded and more exclusive and glamorous as you head from the downtown beginning with Playa de Los Ingleses, just off the downtown. La Mano, a creepy giant concrete hand coming out of the sand, is one of the symbols of the city, and sits on Playa de Los Ingleses, across from the bus station. It's often the site of fashion shoots. After Playa de Los Ingelese is Playa El Emir, Playa Brava, Playa de La Barra, Playa de Montoya, Playa Bikini—well known for surfing, and, as its name implies, girl watching—and Playa Jose Ignacio, which is known for its celebrity homes and its surfing spots. In the main center of Mar del Plata, the coastal route on the Rio de la Plata is called Rambla Claudio Williman and on the Atlantic side it's Rambla Lorenzo Batlle Pacheco. Although these ramblas have different names, they are both part of the same Uruguay highway, Ruta 10, which wraps around Punta and the surrounding beach towns.

Punta del Este's central beaches are full of high rises, much like parts of Miami. Smaller hotels, resorts, apartment complexes, and single-family homes that are available for rent make up many of the accommodation options as you move out from the center, particularly along the Atlantic coast.

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